Boston-based Automated Engineering Inc. (AEi) may be a little-known part of Mycronic for most SMT customers, but for the fast-growing automotive electronics industry, AEi’s compact solutions are critical to producing millions of advanced camera sensor modules per year.
THE RISE OF VEHICLE AUTOMATION. One look in the cab of any modern car will tell you where the industry is heading: from intelligent cruise control to lane assist and collision avoidance systems, automated controls are proliferating. The capabilities of these systems are increasing rapidly, and all are powered by advanced camera and sensor systems.
Unlike many of today’s “vision cameras”, which display images to support drivers’ decisions, these new types of vehicle automation systems rely heavily on what are often called sensing cameras, which use sophisticated image-processing algorithms that are specifically designed to support the decision-making of the car’s own software. Today these decisions involve relatively straightforward tasks such as collision warnings and active braking, but their capabilities are quickly evolving.
With the help of sensing camera modules, the industry is rapidly approaching next generation driver assistance and driverless vehicle systems. This is where AEi’s products play a critical role, enabling flexible mass production of camera modules with industry leading Active Alignment Assembly and Test equipment and manufacturing solutions for its customers.
High-volume precision assembly
The technology behind active alignment may be complex, but the principle is fairly simple. To assemble a camera module, a sophisticated automated assembly process is needed to first activate the sensor, align and focus a lens to the sensor to measure optical characteristics through a series of images, and then lock the module into place with adhesives .– all with extreme control and precision. A. single speck of dust or misalignment of a few microns, and the vehicle’s entire safety critical system can be compromised.
The machine that enables this, the Camera Module Assembly and Test system, or CMAT, performs all of the multiple axis alignment process steps as well as component surface preparation, epoxy dispensing, pre-curing and test. All of this is performed within the machine’s compact 1 x 1.5-meter footprint. A Final Functional Test (FFT) system, a derivative of the CMAT that measures the optical performance of the fully cured camera module assembly, is also often included in a complete assembly line to ensure outgoing product quality.
“Our machines are essentially mini-factories,” explains Steven Michaud, President at AEi. “There’s a plasma surface-activation module, a dispense module, an align module, a test module and so on – with a total cycle time short enough for the demands of high volume automotive production. The intelligence involved in coordinating and optimizing these processes is what really makes us unique. These are some very high-precision algorithms that enable everything from process design and alignment, to data optimization.”
A lifetime of high performance
The result is a highly precise and robust camera or sensor that remains accurate despite the lifetime of environmental stresses a vehicle needs to withstand. “Our customers need to ensure that the quality of the camera can hold up to high and low temperature extremes and harsh road conditions,” says Michaud. “So, material processing is key. Alignment is key. Cleanliness is key. Quality of assembly is key. They need to predict and ensure the same quality in all of the variables. Active alignment is critical to holding all this together.”
For every new camera we develop a process together with the customer, covering dispensing, alignment, anticipating adhesive shrinkage during curing, etc. We develop all of this and work through the entire mass production period. We like to think of ourselves as an extension of our customer’s own design and process optimization capabilities.”
On the forefront of electronics assembly
AEi was acquired by Mycronic in 2016 as part of a strategic diversification program into an adjacent application in automotive electronics assembly. As a technology pioneer and the world’s number-one supplier of high performance camera assembly systems, AEi was already a well-positioned partner to most of the largest automotive electronics manufacturers.
Today the company has a leading position in a fast-growing market driven by advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous driving (AD) penetration within the automotive industry.